Spoiler: They Make Babies

A Visit From Sir Nicholas, by Victoria Alexander.

Posted in Romance Review by spoilerbaby on January 9, 2010

I bought this book for extremely excellent reasons.  First, it was the only romance novel on sale at the drugstore that I had not yet read.  Second, the book came with a cardboard Christmas ornament.  The cardboard Santa has gone the way of the dodo (shot by imperialist hunters, if by “shot” you mean “chewed” and by “imperialist hunters” you mean “my cat”).  The book, however, has stuck around, waiting for me to get this blog up and running. With no further ado, then, I present to you the tale of Sir Nicholas, the financially-privileged asshole, and Lady Elizabeth, the headstrong lady who is unfortunate enough to find his attitude charming.

The book opens with an execrable flyleaf illustration, in which a couple — clad only in bedclothes, SCANDALOUS — is accompanied by the text, “Not every Christmas gift comes down the chimney…”    Reader, this is true.  After all, some gifts come on your face.

After the flyleaf and the usual filler pages, the book has an excerpt of “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.  This, in case the title didn’t tell you, is a holiday-themed romance.  Holiday-themed romances are the blight of my soul, and the boon to many a romance author’s wallet.  I usually won’t buy them, but in this case I liked the heroine, Lady Elizabeth Effington.  She’s a smart woman with a sharp tongue who plays frivolous in most company.  Common knowledge says that Elizabeth is destined to marry Charles Langley.  Charles, however, is blond, handsome, good-natured, and rich, so of course Elizabeth is uninterested.  She has the hots for the dark-haired, brooding, mercurial (the manly form of moodiness!), poor Nicholas Collingsworth.  Nicholas was orphaned young, and was adopted by a family friend.  Think Heathcliff, but without the moors and the random hollering.

Nicholas, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, has all sorts of Deep Man Trauma.  His father was bad with money (HORROR) and ran off with a woman (TERROR) who was betrothed to his brother (UNSPEAKABLE).  Nicholas, in order to avoid being his father’s sort of dude, has vowed to go away and make his fortune.  He’s shared some stolen kisses with Elizabeth, and loves her deeply.  In the logic of romantic heroes, however, Nicholas thinks that he shouldn’t take her heart without being a rich and worthwhile character.  So he  pretends that he only felt lust for her — even after she gives him a copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! — and pretends to consider marrying her strictly for her dowry and her lovely bazooms. Oh, but it hurts him, reader!  Do you not feel the “unrelenting pain in his  own heart” (59)?  But he has to do what his Deep Man Trauma tells him is right. We’re all slaves to our Man Trauma.

Elizabeth snaps back quickly, at least.  The reason why she appreciated Nicholas is that he spoke to her as if she were his equal, and this churlish behavior revises her opinion of him.  She tells Nicholas that indeed, it must only be lust, and leaves looking unaffected.  When Charles proposes to her very soon after, she says yes.  BAM.

Lo, the stage has been set.  Will they make babies?  WILL THEY?  (Spoiler: yes.)

Chapter three ends with Nicholas acknowledging that he will always keep Elizabeth’s copy of Christmas Carol close to his loins.  (If you want a fantastic example of Deep Man Trauma, here it is: “He gripped the book in his hand tighter.  He needed no reminder of this night, this Christmas, but he would cherish the gift always as a token of her affection, no matter how misplaced it might have been.  He would keep it close to his heart, as he would keep the memory of her laugh and her kindness and her kiss, and it would warm him as he went on with his life.  Alone.”  I can feel his man-pain throbbing with every word.)

An excerpt of Christmas Carol! It’s ten years later now!

Nicholas is knighted, and has earned his fortune.  Charles is conveniently dead.  Even more convenient, Elizabeth’s financial matters are in the hands of Nicholas, due to a stipulation in her dead husband’s will.  She played the role of the frivolous woman too well, and Charles totally bought it; despite apparently being an awesome dude at the beginning of the novel, it turned out that Charles was a total doofus.  In general, everyone acts like they’re glad he got out of the way. Grief? What grief?  It’s been three years, it’s totally time for Elizabeth to get with the Correct Dude!  Fuck that Charles guy.

Elizabeth continues to be a high-handed, strong-minded lady with a knack for budgets.  She even knows about her husband’s mistress, and has forgiven him (if not completely recovered from her hurt feelings).  As Elizabeth is still a hottie, and given her extremely sexy suspicion and dislike of him, Nicholas is instantly re-besmitten.  He decides not to leave her alone, but to spend a short time “monitoring” her control of her family’s finances.

I give all of this set-up in order to explain how the book stayed right on the cusp of what I like to read.  Nicholas’s arrogance is seen as a flaw, one that Elizabeth recognizes. While I might mock how Elizabeth is the typical strong-willed lady who just needs a little taming, she’s actually written quite well.  The authors shows (rather than tells) that Elizabeth is intelligent, quick-witted, and thoughtful.  Elizabeth even decides to enter into a purely physical relationship with Nicholas, since she wants him but doesn’t want to be married again. Elizabeth, in other words, mostly made Nicholas bearable to read.

I liked that they were constantly turning the tables on one another.  Nicholas is Scrooge-esque, believing that money is always the answer, and Elizabeth thinks that keeping her independence is always the answer.  It’s a great set-up.

And yet– Nicholas is always going to have the upper hand.  He’s a dude, in nineteenth-century England.  He has control over Elizabeth’s finances.  He can cut them off — and does — just to make a point.

The scene that annoyed me the most came when Jonathon came to consult with Nick about Elizabeth’s foiling of Nicholas’s marriage plans.  Nicholas had just retaken control of Elizabeth’s finances (in response to her cutting off their sexual relationship) and she retaliated by spending money frivolously.  Jonathon suggested that Nick show her the price of independence by cutting her off; the conversation then seamlessly segued into a suggestion that Nick try to befriend her two children.  (No, the children really don’t enter into the storyline much more than that.  They’re lovely well-behaved scallywags, who pop up occasionally to humanize the hero.)  Only then does Jonathon suggest that Nicholas tell Elizabeth that he loves her, and that he show her that she misses out on a grand passion by being independent.

Overall, the dialogue is great, the descriptions interesting, and the characters generally very likable.  However, I can’t really take the cutting off of a woman’s funds as a light-hearted plot point.  More importantly, Nicholas’s focus on controlling Elizabeth’s money, and his tendency to view Elizabeth as an object to acquire, are not subject to correction in the course of the story.  Elizabeth is the one who wins herself over to Nick’s  side.  It’s not that he stops being smug or domineering or acquisitive; instead, Elizabeth comes to find it charming.  Forgive me if I don’t sympathize.

By the numbers:

  • The sexy but non-sexual bits: 140-143, 169-182.
  • The ‘they almost do it’ bit: 199-202.
  • Sexy bits: 220-233.
  • Sexiness of the sexy bits: overall 6/10; the explicitly sexy bits were 4/10.
  • Likelihood that I will borrow a book  by this author in the future: 80%.
  • Likelihood that I will buy a book by this author in the future: 20%.
  • Overall, I’d give it a: 5/10. Recommended if you’re at an airport and forgot your book.

Let me know what you think!  Did I read a really terrible example of Alexander’s work?  Do you have recommendations for other novels?  Am I shouting into an empty well?

— First Mate Jess

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